Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ice Age, Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Jurassic lark

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) • View trailer for Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and rather pointlessly, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.2.09
Buy DVD: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs • Buy Blu-Ray: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (DVD + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

While leaving the theater Saturday morning, surrounded by cheerful patrons who'd just had a wonderful time at a preview screening of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, I overheard one woman say, between laughs, that "...they should make an entire movie with Scrat; he is so funny!"

No, no, no.
Having managed to avoid becoming dino-dinner or a snack for a giant
carnivorous plant, our reluctant heroes -- from left, Ellie, Manny, Crash, Buck,
Eddie and Diego -- are less than thrilled when they reach the so-called Chasm
of Death.

The Ice Age series has been so successful because of smart writing fine-tuned to a cleverly varied cast: both in terms of the animated characters on the screen, and the voice talent bringing them to life. It's a perfect ensemble, and messing about with the formula  as happened, for example, when both Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman departed TV's Mary Tyler Moore Show  would only screw things up.

Thus, the eternally frustrated Scrat's efforts to secure the elusive acorn are funny because they are brief bits scattered throughout the rest of a much more expansive story tapestry: running sight gags that serve as chapter bumpers ... and, in the great stage tradition, always leave us wanting more.

Co-directors Carlos Saldanha and Michael Thurmeier, along with a quintet of writers, acknowledge Scrat's popularity by giving him a new "enemy" of sorts. The bug-eyed saber-toothed squirrel finds himself alternately enraptured and vexed by a female counterpart  Scratte (which the press notes advise should be pronounced to rhyme with sauté who isn't the least bit shy about exploiting her sex appeal to snatch the acorn herself.

Even more than before, Scrat's hapless adventures echo the classic confrontations between the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, with the far more crafty Scratte literally running circles around her adversary.

Priceless stuff.

In the larger universe, where the prehistoric animals chat with each other, woolly mammoths Manny and Ellie (voiced by Ray Romano and Queen Latifah) are expecting their first mini-mammoth. The nervous and neurotic Manny, in the grand tradition of all first-time fathers, is driving himself  and everybody else  crazy with anticipation (a jittery state that the dryly mordant Romano captures unerringly).

But as real-world singletons have learned after watching their friends marry and begin families, the group dynamic sometimes lurches in uncomfortable directions. Diego (Denis Leary), worried that his saber-tooth tigering skills are atrophying in the midst of all this domestic harmony, wonders if it's time for him to return to the wild on his own ... much to Manny's chagrin.

Sid (John Leguizamo), the overly sensitive sloth with self-esteem issues, dolefully laments the fact that he'll never be a mother (!). It's hard to imagine a creature as deliberately, hilariously ugly as Sid touching our heartstrings with his misery, but that's the genius of these filmmakers.

And of Leguizamo, who still has the funniest  and wettest  lisp in Hollywood.

Sid therefore is delighted when he stumbles into an ice cave and encounters three apparently abandoned eggs. The fact that they're almost half his size doesn't slow him down for a second; Sid sees only an opportunity to experience motherhood. Manny, pragmatic even in the face of his own impending parental anxieties, wisely suggests that Sid put them back.

But Sid never heard excellent advice that couldn't be ignored, and so he falls asleep one night and wakes the next morning surrounded by three hungry baby dinosaurs.

While lip service is paid to the liberties this story takes with the fossil record, the justification is as old as Jules Verne: a massive underground land far beneath our sub-zero heroes' icy habitat, where dinosaurs miraculously have survived and thrived. One of these, a mother T. Rex in no mood for games, comes looking for her hatchlings.

And when she returns to the subterranean land with her three babies, Sid also dangles from her jaws. Never the brightest bulb in the chandelier, the sloth believes he'll be able to argue his case for co-parenting rights, when in fact he's about to become dinner.

Encouraged by Ellie, who refuses to abandon a friend, Manny and Diego reluctantly follow her lead  also accompanied by arrested adolescent possum siblings Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck)  and enter a dangerous realm where woolly mammoths aren't even close to being the largest creatures around.

Saldanha and Thurmeier deftly orchestrate the subsequent hijinks for all ages, alternating between the snarky wisecracks so precisely delivered by Romano, Leary and Leguizamo, and purely visual setpieces such as Sid's hell-for-leather pursuit of his three eggs, shortly after their discovery, when they slide from his grasp and risk being crushed at the bottom of a steep snowy mountain.

John Powell's lively score is punctuated by several well-placed pop songs  notably Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and a hilariously re-worked version of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)"  which accompany Scrat and Scratte's rather unusual "mating ritual."

Mention also must be made of the animation itself, which continues to improve by leaps and bounds. Although Pixar still leads the way with its CGI work, Chris Wedge (who directed the first Ice Age) and Blue Sky Studios aren't far behind.

The little touches here are simply amazing. Massive snow drifts, which were nothing more than distant white mounds in the day of (for example) Disney's 101 Dalmatians, have become fully dimensioned piles of sparkly flakes that scatter and spray when various creatures plunge into them; even the sound effects are wonderfully lifelike.

Manny, Diego, Sid and the others may be made-up animated characters, but their environment looks and sounds absolutely authentic.

More than many recent animated films, this Ice Age installment also makes ample use of its 3D "camera work." This ranges from the casual placement of characters on a "stage" with depth  giving us viewers a sense of seeing around and behind things, which of course never happens with a flat 2D image  to rip-snorting action scenes such as a strafing pursuit by hungry pterodactyls.

Aside from Scratte  who, like Scrat, doesn't say anything  the cast expands by one more key player: Buck, an enthusiastically verbose, slightly crazed, one-eyed weasel who accidentally fell into this giant reptile-laden world. As marvelously voiced by the ubiquitous Simon Pegg  currently on view in the flesh as Scottie, in the re-booted Star Trek franchise  Buck is a devil-may-care survivor in this land truly down under: a self-styled swashbuckler who obviously watched too many Errol Flynn movies.

Buck agrees to help Manny & Co. find Sid, carefully helping them navigate this Jurassic realm laden with danger spots that sport names such as the Chasm of Death or the Plates of Woe. (At least one of these screenwriters must be a fan of William Goldman's The Princess Bride.)

The result is just plain fun: a delight from the first frame, as Scrat's oversize nose snuffles into view, to the massive scroll of final credits, punctuated by multi-colored dinosaur drawings done by (I would guess) the children of the scores of animators who made this film.

(One bit of advice: After the primary characters stop dancing to Queen Latifah's rendition of "Everybody Do the Dinosaur," when the closing credits begin, there's no reason to stay longer. Scrat doesn't reappear  nor does anybody else  after the exhaustive credits finally grind to a halt.)

Ultimately, words can't do justice to the many charms of this highly visual film, which must be experienced  preferably in 3D  to be appreciated.

Very likely more than once, I should think.

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